Kevin FTW

Kevin FTW

Jamie Lauren says what side she's on.

So here we are...13 episodes in and it is down to the final four. The final four most of us have predicted since the show started back in August... can't say I am surprised, because I am not. They are obviously the chefs who most deserve to be in the finale, the strongest of the bunch, the creme de la creme, and an exciting part one of the finale it was. First of all, I was super stoked that the Magical Elves (I wonder how magical they truly are, like rabbits in hats magic? Or sawing barely dressed women in half magic?) chose to film  in Napa Valley. After living in San Francisco for the past eight years, it was really great to see the wine country showcased like that on national television. If you have never spent any time in the wine country of Northern California, then I am so sorry for you. It truly is one of the most amazing places I have ever been, and what a great treat for foodies. Mentioning wine doesn't even seem to be necessary because it's such a given. Though my tastes tend to run towards the grapes that are grown on the other side of the valley in Sonoma, I still love and appreciate Napa for what it is: gorgeous landscaping, great food, a place to lay back and step away from the hustle and bustle of the city and a perfect backdrop for the Top Chef: Vegas finale.

From the minute we saw the chefs waiting at the train I had a feeling something was up. Since I am fairly familiar with the neighborhood, and was actually given tickets on the Napa Valley wine train once, I had a feeling that was coming, and I can tell you that cooking on moving vehicles or trains, or ships is not easy! I did it for the first time this past year when I spent nine days on an Alaskan cruise trying not to throw up half the time. So I get it — moving and cooking without anytime to adjust? That's gotta suck, if you are one of the unfortunates that suffers from motion sickness. Add to that the pressure of being in the Top Chef finale (not that I would know, well a little, but whatever), having 30 minutes to cook and the possibility of perhaps winning a brand spanking new Prius? And by Prius I mean a hybrid car that is made by Toyota. That can be driven to the Meritage resort and spa while sipping on some Terlato wine, before wrapping oneself in Glad cling wrap and having dinner at Brix. OK OK, I'll stop, but that was some serious promotional airtime going on. Of course the idea of incorporating grapes into the Quickfire was bound to happen. Same reason why they made us use crawfish in New Orleans last season, but I did like how creative the chefs got with the grapes, especially Jen. I have to say I thought the idea of clams, grapes, and liver actually sounded totally vile together, but apparently the judges really liked it, but not enough for her to speed off in her very own Prius. That honor went to Mikey V., who after a nice long break, came back and was still a jerk. Glad to see not much has changed. It was interesting to hear him finally remark on the fact that there was a great deal of sibling rivalry between himself and Bryan and that he basically didn't care if it was his brother, that he would hunt him down, tar and feather him, and then throw him to the wolves just to win Top Chef. But, he did create a nice dish for the Quickfire, and he really was the one chef who embraced the idea of really using grapes. I thought it was a well-deserved win, and I would venture to guess he did too. Kevin and Bryan also both did a solid job and I liked that Kevin did a dessert, which sounded delicious to me, way more than clams and liver (I'm still gagging from that, though I am not a fan of the liver, so this isn't surprising). Oh and let's not fail to mention the reappearance of Mr. Chiarello, because he was SO well-liked on TC Masters and he had me running around like a crazy person when I was on the show. Wow, that man made me very nervous. But that being said, I did have the chance to hang with him over the summer at his place in Napa and I gotta give props where they are due. Man can cook. Um, I think I had some of the best ribs I have ever eaten at his place back in August. I just don't think I ever want to work for him again, because even after 30 seconds I was ready to throw up. One more thing, and I'll insert this here, because I really have been nice all season and haven't had to speak ill of the Padma, but, what the hell was that dress she was wearing at the Elimination Challenge party? That's all.

Moving on. The elimination. Now, if there has been a time all season that I was jealous, this was it. Talk about right up my alley. Shopping at a farmers' market ... being forced to work with only locally grown products ... I loved it! Cooking 300 portions alone for 150 guests? I loved that part less. As a professional chef in a professional kitchen you have help. A prep cook. A sous-chef. A dishwasher who just peels potatoes. The guy who takes out the trash. Someone. Five hours to cook that much food and transport it and get it set up without burning out, passing out, and freaking out is a commendable feat in itself. Here is my recap of all the dishes, and please, don't be too harsh. A lot of this is based on personal preference, and I am a picky eater. Let's start with Kevin, my number one go-to guy, and the one I am secretly, or not so secretly, rooting for. I gotta say, out of all the vegetarian dishes, his really did it for me. I thought it was gorgeous, and I think when food is visually appealing, it really does make a difference. The idea of taking something so simple and just celebrating it for what it is, like a beet and a carrot, is ballsy and impressive. For me, the component that was most impressive on that dish was the carrot top puree. I have never seen that before, and I thought it was a brilliant way of using the entire product. Very smart. I was less impressed with his defense of undercooked brisket, though I understood why he would have said the bit about texture. It was nice to see him wax poetic about his food. There is no doubt Kevin is serious about cooking, but if he said "per se" one more time, I would have screamed! On to Jen. I was less impressed by her food. I liked that she used all parts of the duck, but I can't say I would have wanted to eat that much duck on a plate. Sometimes a meat like duck, which is rich and gamey, can be a little overwhelming when it is used a lot in one place. Her goat cheese with radishes and mushrooms looked nice, and apparently tasted delicious, but it didn't speak to me in the way Kevin's dish did. I did find it odd that Chiarello remarked that he had never had goat cheese and basil together. That seemed a little strange to me. I've seen those two things put together before, quite a number of times. I guess not in Chiarello's world? Then there are the brothers. I gotta say Bryan's food sounded great. Simple but well-executed, even if he was missing a wee bit of salt. The ravioli looked lovely and I bet tasted that way too, and squash puree can do no wrong in my book. I was impressed that he got his short ribs so tender in the brief period of time, but was bummed for him that the fig flavor didn't come through that much. As for his brother ... I think out of the four chefs Michael's food was the least appetizing. I know all about slow cooked eggs, and I have to agree with the judges that if they aren't executed properly the texture can be gnarly. That's one thing about an egg like that — it needs texture, whether it's balancing it with something crispy or chewy, it needs it. I think the judges were completely right in their assesment that the vegetables in the pistou were cut too small and that the egg was too large for the dish. I was thinking the same thing when the dish flashed upon the screen. It seemed like he was trying to go rustic, but then went refined and shot himself in the foot a little. A big crusty piece of grilled bread, some garlic oil, the egg (maybe a slow cooked quail egg?), and large chunks of warm farm fresh vegetables would have made that dish delicious. As for his foie gras dish: I was floored that he managed to bang out a bunch of terrines in five hours. That takes some serious chops. I was less floored with the pairing of foie gras with turnips, but that's just me. The pear made sense. The color of the soup was lovely. The idea that it all needed to be eaten together was smart. Michael is definitely a very conceptual chef and that's impressive, but for some reason I just have a hard time getting past his exterior. But, hey, I have heard the same thing said about me, that I'm smug, confident, obnoxious, etc. I just try to take it all with a grain of salt and continue to try and be the best I can be at what I love to do.

As I come to the conclusion of my second to last blog (your can all stop crying now...), I make one last prediction: I say goodnight to Jen, just because. And I say hello to the top three guys. With any luck the winner may just be Kevin. For some reason, I am feeling him all the way. Guess we have to wait another week and find out. Until then....

Every week I say the same thing. But you REALLY should be following me on Twitter. I want to get to 4000 followers. Then 5000. Then 10,000. Then I'll take over the world. OK. I'm done. I'm clearly just wasting space now.

Shameless self-promotion! @chefjamielauren

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